Milo loves to read so please enjoy his reading list along with some notes and quotes he has compiled from some of them.
"Train" Pete Dexter
1953. Train, a black golf prodigy caddy. Miller Packard, police sergeant and golfer. Norah Rose, rape victim and Miller's lover. Murder, highjacking, suspense, read-noir. Enjoy.
"The Alchemist's Daughter: A Novel" Katherine McMahon
Nineteen year old Emilie Selden has been raised by her stern alchemist father in early eighteenth century England. She becomes a first rate student, but not of the ways of the world. Along comes a stranger, Robert Aislabie, who wins Emilie's hand, much to the chagrin of her father. As Emilie discovers that Aislabie is not whom he appeared to be in the beginning of the courtship, it takes our protagonist some time before she is able to peel back the blinders and take charge of her own life.
"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" Junot Diaz
Diaz successfully blends the fictitious lives of a Dominican family in the U.S. with the horrors of the non-fictitious Trujillo regime. The family blames their misfortune on a curse known as the fuku which is tied to their long history with the dictator.
The family is Oscar de Leon, who is a 300 lb outcast (for his size and his love of fantasy fiction and Dungeons and Dragons), his mother, who has had a series of bad choices in men and has long ago lost her physical beauty, and sister Lola who has inherited many of her mother's traits.
As dour is this all sounds, the book is a highly entertaining read, not only for the exploration of the characters and the Dominican street slang but also for the weaving in of the troubled history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.
"Paris Trout" Pete Dexter
Paris Trout is a man with no remorse. He is feared in Cotton Point, Georgia, as the white shop owner who makes loans, sells insurance policies and used cars to the black community. Of course, the cars have been painted over the rust, the policies are really no good and a particular loan was paid in blood. Trout is surprised that anyone's making a fuss about it, let alone going to trial.
This is the story of Trout, his long suffering wife Hanna, Harry Seagraves, the town's prominent attorney who has nightmares about defending Trout and the wronged Sayers family, who are paying dearly for Trout's bigotry and arrogance. Dexter nails this one and is one of my favorite writers.
"White Noise" Don DeLillo
Released in 1984, White Noise refers to the aural and visual propaganda in the life of an American family of that time period. With today's constant bombardment of information, this may seem rather tame, but for the time period, it is chillingly prescient. If you like your humor black, this one's your baby.
"Immortality" Milan Kundera
I read this book in 2006 and decided to crack it open once again. It's one of those so densely layered with philosophical nuggets that I'll most likely crack it again in 2014.
Here Kundera weaves a tale centered around the German writer/thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his relationship with Bettina von Arnim. I use the word 'tale' loosely as what we are given is his musings on the nature of relationships and existence all the while weaving in historical characters such as Hemingway and Napoleon Bonaparte. What would come off as lecturing by lesser writers instead becomes seamless elements of the story.
There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.
Up to a certain moment our death seems too distant for us to occupy ourselves with it. It is unseen and invisible. That is the first, happy period of life.
But then we suddenly begin to see our death ahead of us and we can no longer keep ourselves from thinking about it. It is with us. And because immortality sticks to death as tightly as Laurel and Hardy, we can say that our immortality is with us, too. And the moment we know it is with us we feverishly begin to look after it. We have a formal suit made for it, we buy a new tie for it, worried that others might select the clothes and tie, and select badly.
Let's recall Agnes in the elevator that shook as if seized by Saint Vitus' dance. Even though she was a cybernetics expert, she didn't have any idea what was going on in the head of that machine which was as strange and impenetrable to her as the mechanism of the various objects with which she daily came into contact, from the small computer next to her phone to the dishwasher.
In contrast, Goethe lived during that brief span of history when the level of technology already gave life a certain measure of comfort but when an educated person could still understand all the devices he used. Goethe knew how and with what materials his house had been constructed, he knew why his oil lamp gave off light, he knew the principle of the telescope with which he and Bettina looked at Jupiter; and while he himself could not perform surgery, he was present at several operations, and when he was sick he could converse with the doctor in the vocabulary of an expert. The world of technical objects was completely open and intelligible to him. This was Goethe's great moment at the center of European history, a moment that brings on a pang of nostalgic regret in the heart of someone trapped in a jerking, dancing elevator.
Kundera devotes a chapter to imagology. Here are a couple choice paragraphs:
The politician is dependent on the journalist. But on whom are the journalists dependent? On those who pay them. And those who pay them are the advertising agencies that buy space from newspapers and time from radio and TV stations. At first glance it may seem that the agencies would unhesitatingly approach all the high-circulation newspapers capable of increasing the sales of their products. But that's a naive view of the matter. Sales of products are less important than we think. Just look at the communist countries: the millions of pictures of Lenin displayed everywhere you go certainly do not stimulate love for Lenin. The advertising agencies of the Communist Party (the so-called agitprop departments) have long forgotten the practical goal of their activity (to make the communist system better liked) and have become an end in themselves: they have created their own language, their formulas, their aesthetics (the heads of these agencies once had absolute power over art in their countries), their idea if the right life-style, which they cultivate, disseminate, and force upon their unfortunate peoples.
Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology's power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power.
Here he writes of personal perception:
He suddenly realized, too, that people saw him differently from how he saw himself or from how he thought he was seen by others. He was the only one among all his colleagues at the station who was forced to leave, even though (and he had no doubt about it) the Bear had defended him as well as he could. What was it about him that bothered the advertising men? For that matter, it would be naive of him to think that it was only they who found him unacceptable. Others must have found him unacceptable, too. Without his realizing it in the slightest, something must have happened to his image. Something must have happened and he didn't know what it was, and he'd never know. Because that's how things are, and this goes for everyone: we will never find out why we irritate people, what bothers people about us, what they like about us, what they find ridiculous; for us our own image is our greatest mystery.
How we use language to couch what we say everyday is often overlooked. This paragraph speaks volumes:
Just open any dictionary. To fight means to set one's will against the will of another, with the aim of defeating the opponent, to bring him to his knees, possibly to kill him. “Life is a battle” is a proposition that must at first have expressed melancholy and resignation. But our century of optimism and massacres has succeeded in making this terrible sentence sound like a joyous refrain. You will say that to fight against somebody may be terrible, but to fight for something is noble and beautiful. Yes, it is beautiful to strive for happiness (or love, or justice, and so on), but if you are in the habit of designating your striving with the word “fight,” it means that your noble striving conceals the longing to knock someone to the ground. The fight for is always connected with the fight against, and the preposition “for” is always forgotten in the course of the fight in favor of the preposition “against.”
Here's an interesting perspective on Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum":
I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who understands toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that's alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.
Musing on a story oft told of Beethoven refusing to remove his hat for royalty, he says:
Thus, if our allegorical picture shows Beethoven striding past a group of aristocrats without taking off his hat, it cannot mean that aristocrats were contemptible reactionaries while he was an admirable revolutionary, but that those who create (statues, poems, symphonies) deserve more respect than those who rule (over servants, officials, or whole nations); that creativity means more than power, art more than politics; that works of art, not wars or aristocratic costume balls, are immortal.
(Actually, Goethe must have been thinking exactly the same thing, except that he didn't consider it useful to reveal this unpleasant truth to the masters of the world at the time, while they were still alive. He was certain that in eternity it would be they who would bow their heads first, and that was enough for him.)
The allegory is clear, and yet it is generally misinterpreted. Those who look at this allegorical picture and hasten to applaud Beethoven completely fail to understand his pride: they are for the most part people blinded by politics, who themselves give precedence to Lenin, Guevara, Kennedy, or Mitterand over Fellini or Picasso. Romain Rolland would surely have bowed much more deeply than Goethe, if he had encountered Stalin on a path in Teplitz.
In our time, the pace of life has quickened considerably just in the past 50 years. We do tend to think of time as linear, moving from one point to another. Here Kundera uses roads and highways as metaphors for this condition:
Road: a strip of ground over which one walks. A highway differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A highway has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A highway is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.
Before roads and paths disappeared from the landscape, they had disappeared from the soul: man stopped wanting to walk, to walk on his own feet and to enjoy it. What's more, he no longer saw his own life as a road, but as a highway: a line that led from one point to another, from the rank of captain to the rank of general, from the role of wife to the role of widow. Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that had to be overcome by ever greater speed.
Road and highway; these are also two different conceptions of beauty. When Paul says that at a particular place the landscape is beautiful, that means: if you stopped the car at that place, you might see a beautiful fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a park; or a lake reaching far into the distance, with swans floating on its brilliant surface.
On the writing of novels, Kundera places himself in this scene having a conversation with one of this characters:
At last Avenarius broke the silence: “What are you writing about these days, anyway?”
“That's impossible to recount.”
“What a pity.”
“Not at all. An advantage. The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the nonessential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold.”
He disagreed: “I can retell the story of The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas with the greatest pleasure, anytime you ask me, from beginning to end!”
“I feel the same way, and I love Alexander Dumas,” I said. “All the same, I regret that almost all novels ever written are much too obedient to the rules of unity of action. What I mean to say is that at their core is one single chain of causally related acts and events. These novels are like a narrow street along which someone drives his characters with a whip. Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded is concentrated. The novel is consumed in the fire of its own tension like a bale of straw.”
“When I hear you,” Professor Avenarius said uneasily, “I just hope that your novel won't turn out to be a bore.”
“Do you think that everything that is not a mad chase after a final resolution is a bore? As you eat this wonderful duck, are you bored? Are you rushing toward a goal? On the contrary, you want the duck to enter into you as slowly as possible and you never want its taste to end. A novel shouldn't be like a bicycle race but a feat of many courses. I am really looking forward to Part Six. A completely new character will enter the novel. And at the end of that part he will disappear without a trace. He causes nothing and leaves no effects. That is precisely what I like about him. Part Six will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest erotic story I have ever written. It will make you sad, too.”
Avenarius lapsed into a perplexed silence. After a while, he asked me in a kindly voice, “And what will your novel be called?”
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
“I think somebody has already written that.”
“I did! But I was wrong about the title then. That title was supposed to belong to the novel I'm writing now.”
On starting a new life:
Supposedly, astrology teaches us fatalism: you won't escape your fate! But in my view, astrology (please understand, astrology as a metaphor of life) says something far more subtle: you won't escape your life's theme! From this follows, for example, that it is sheer illusion to want to start all over again, to begin "a new life" that does not resemble the preceding one, to begin, so to speak, from zero. Your life will always be built from the same material, the same bricks, the same problems, and what will seem to you at first "a new life" will soon turn out to be just a variation of your old existence.
"Deaf Sentence: A Novel" David Lodge
This is a chapter in the life of retired linguistics professor Edmond Bates, who is growing more despondent due to lack of respect, his hearing problem (which lands him into a predicament with an unstable grad student) and his parts not behaving quite as they used to. I wasn't wild about this one but it's a relatively short read. The most poignant parts are Bates' ruminations on deafness (of which I understand Lodge also suffers).
I enjoyed this bit from the opening paragraph of which I think most can relate:
This is known to linguists as the Lombard Reflex, named after Etienne Lombard, who established early in the twentieth century that speakers increase their vocal effort in the presence of noise in the environment in order to resist degradation of the intelligibility of their messages. When many speakers display this reflex simultaneously they become, of course, their own environmental noise source, adding incrementally to its intensity.
I've also found this to be the case with many bands I have played in.
"Sarum" Edward Rutherfurd
I haven't cracked an epic historical novel for some time so dove into this 1350 page tome on the recommendation of my mother-in-law. It was a surprisingly fast read as Rutherfurd knows the tricks to keep you engaged.
In essence, it entails the history of the Salisbury region of England from the stone age up to 19th century with a bit thrown in of the 20th century toward the end. It follows a handful of family lines through the ages so we are privy to the trait and physical similarities of many generations, while the protagonists are mostly unaware of their heritage.
Highlights are the design and building of Stonehenge, the creation of the first Roman made "highways" in that part of the world and the construction of the infamous Salisbury Cathedral.
NATHANIEL: But can you not see – once you destroy kingship, you destroy the natural order. Even if the king be wrong, he is the anointed monarch: our ancient privileges are bound up with his. Take away the king, and who governs?
OBADIAH: Men of God.
NATHANIEL: Presbyters. Why, their tyranny would be worse than the king's. I have heard it said: new Presbyter is but the old priest writ large.
EDMUND: The king may rule, but only by consent of parliament.
NATHANIEL: Then Parliament usurps the king – steals his ancient rights. Tell me this, by whose authority do they then rule instead? Who calls them to govern? I say, if the old order is gone, then there's no authority in England. The Parliament might as well be summoned by the people themselves.
EDMUND: That is a foolish charge.
NATHANIEL: It is not. If you destroy the authority of the king, Brother Edmund, then it will one day be the mob, the people themselves who will rule. And that would be chaos and tyranny combined.
EDMUND: I see will shall never agree.
He was not stupid, but like an animal whose body is not yet coordinated, his brain often seemed to move clumsily and at times, to his shame, a kind of fog seemed to descend upon its operations. The year before, when in order to bring the English calendar in line with that of continental Europe, the date had been moved by eleven days, he could not shake off the feeling, shared by many of the illiterate folk, that the eleven days had been lost. And when he heard his father laughing at a little group of labourers in the street who were crying, "Give us back our eleven days," he began to defend them.
"They were on the calendar but they've been taken away."
"Of course," his father replied, "but that doesn't make the sun rise and set any less does it?"
"No but..." Blushing, he felt the fog descending upon him before breaking off, embarrassed by the look of wonder on his father's face. It had taken him another two days to sort the business out clearly in his mind, to his own satisfaction.
He was slow, and did not pick up received ideas as well as the cleverer boys, but the conclusions he slowly and clumsily reached were his own.
"The Cement Garden" Ian McEwan
Most will find this story disturbing. Three children, two teenagers and a younger child, are left to fend for themselves after both parents die rather suddenly. They have no friends and perhaps the parents did not as well as no one comes calling or to check in on the family. When left to their own devices, such as in this Lord of the Flies type of predicament, a certain primitive behavior creeps up and takes over.
"The Master Butchers Singing Club" Louise Erdrich
This is a tale of struggle in post WW1 America that spans nearly forty years. Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper and butcher by trade, emigrates to Argus, North Dakota with his pregnant wife. Enter into the picture Delphine Watzka, a traveling vaudeville performer who's father resides in the same small town where Fidelis sets up shop. Delphine and her performance partner, Cyprian Lazarre, are drawn back to Argus as Delphine's father, Roy, needs attention, being the town drunk and all. Cyprian is Delphine's lover but he's also struggling with his attraction to men. Any more information would be a spoiler. A great read as Erdich writes with eloquence and humor.
"Manhood for Amateurs" Michael Chabon
Here's yet another writer that I've read in multiples; The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, Gentlemen of the Road, A Model World and Other Stories. He's a self admitted geek (he espouses on that very word in this book under the chapter The Amateur Family) which he has passed on to his children, and it is in that spirit that has resulted in this very entertaining and smart collection of stories about his life as a husband, father and son. Here are a few gems...
There is no more useless activity than that of periodization, the packaging of history, in particular cultural history, into discreet eras – the Jazz Age, the Greatest Generation, the Eisenhower Years, the Sixties. Such periods can never be honestly articulated without resource to so many demurrals and arbitrary demarcations, and the granting of so many exceptions, as to render them practically useless for any kind of serious historical purpose. In times of supposed license, repression reigns freely all around; in eras renowned for their conventionality, oddballs and freaks hoist their banners high. And yet when I heard the gifted and intelligent Ann Druyan wondering, fervently but not without a sense of her own goofiness, if perhaps ages hence some technomagical future alien race might be able to reconstitute, from the record of her brain waves, her feeling of incipient passion for her man and for the work they undertook together, as equals, as partners, and lovers – to re-create the sense of how it felt to be Ann Druyan on an afternoon in New York City during those infatuated, boundary-breaking, termination-shock-crossing years – I knew that I was listening, carried as by a lonely probe across the distances, to the voice of the 1970s.
"You're going to put that up?" my wife had asked me when I brought the rack home form the store. She didn't sound dubious so much as surprised, as if I were also proposing to weave a new set of bath towels from cotton I had grown and harvested myself.
"Duh," I said coolly. "No biggie."
This is an element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. "To keep your head," wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem "If," which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, " when all about you are losing theirs"; but in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, oh shit!
It's in this last element, so crucial to the work of Henry Miller, that gives away the game. When I was twenty years old, the following statement would have at once outraged me and made sense to me: You know nothing about women. It's just a sappy and worthless generalization to me now, empty of meaning. But at the time I thought women was a category, a field, like post-Parker jazz or the varieties of marijuana, that you could study and master and "know something about." If you are a callow young man at twenty – and I think the man of twenty pretty much defines the term – then your callowness consists almost entirely in this type of belief, that life is made up of mastering the particulars, memorizing the lineups, accumulating the trivia and lore, in knowing how to trace the career of drummer Aynsley Dunbar or to get a girl to go to bed with you and your best friend, as an expression of your existential freedom and complete disregard for the fact that she is a person, and she likes you or him, and you're actually kind of breaking her heart.
"The House on Fortune Street" Margot Livesey
"Moo" Jane Smiley
Have I mentioned how much I love to read Jane Smiley's work? I love it. There.
This particular novel, published in 1995, was a bit more complex than her other novels, mostly due to so many characters, plots and sub-plots. If you don't read it in one sitting (who has time for that?) it makes it that much more difficult. There was a time or two where I wanted to put it away as I couldn't quite remember what happened last with a particular character. But her writing is so witty and liquid, it didn't matter and before you know it I'm sailing along once again in Smiley land. This story takes place at Moo University, a fictional campus in the midwest, and addresses the hypocrisy, egomania and delusion that surrounds academia.
I marked several passages to share with you, this first one the thoughts of Cecilia Sanchez, a transplanted professor from L.A. to the midwest:
Cecelia Sanchez, assistant professor of foreign languages and teacher of Spanish, too found the midwest eerie, but it was not only the flatness that threw her. Each day of the past two weeks she would have picked a different source of dislocation. Right now it seemed eerie to look out on twenty-one blond heads, in rows of five, unrelieved by a single brunette. Last night she'd thought the humidity was going to suffocate her. A few nights before, her rented duplex had seemed uncannily muffled by trees. Sometimes it seemed that everyone she saw, everyone on every room, was determined to be very very quiet. In the almost empty streets there was no shouting, no music. When she went into stores, the customers seemed to be gliding around on tires. Salespeople appeared beside her, smiling significantly, murmuring, apparently ready to flee. No one wanted to negotiate or even talk about a purchase. You were supposed to make up your mind in some kind of mysterious vacuum. The smiling itself made Cecelia uneasy, because it didn't seem to lead to anything, and whatever the distinctions were between types of smiles, they were so fine that she couldn't make them out. On all sides, her neighbors were dead quiet, the hum of air conditioners substituting for conversation and argument. She saw men in gas stations exchanging sentences a single word long and understanding what they were getting at.
In Bob's former opinion, girls had been generally unremarkable. Some future one had your name on her, but her likeness to your sisters or aunts or mother was major, and reassuring. He had long assumed a relationship to the whole realm of girls that was very similar to his father's relationship to his mother – respectful, with much understood, little actually declared. He had been subtly warned against anything else, for one thing. Hi father and grandfather spoke disapprovingly about boys and men who followed their dicks around; his mother and aunts reserved their most puzzled scorn for girls and women who didn't fit in, didn't ask for recipes, and thought themselves better than other people. It was easy to see the rational basis for all of this disapproval, too –– that kind of man and those kinds of women made no one happy, least of all themselves.
A book, she had emphasized in her paper, was a negotiable commodity. Above a certain level of obscurity, the public paid for it in either money or praise, rarely both. All American writers of books (makers of films) considered themselves artists, because they defined artistry as the creative manipulation of materials. Through accidents of heritage, upbringing , psychological profile, and temperament, every artist found her(him)self more or less in conflict with the prevailing cultural norms and forms. Choice on this score would be as impossible as choosing one's own fingerprints. Artists from the mainstream of the culture would locate themselves on a single continuum, and if they were in agreement with cultural norms and forms, their reward would be money and no praise (Danielle Steel), and if they were in conflict with cultural norms and forms, their reward would be praise and no money (Ishmael Reed). The restlessness of American cultural norms and forms was well known, however, and any bit the most hermetically sealed writer could hope(fear) that the ever-darting spotlight would one day focus on her(him).
A paragraph on fraternity/sorority culture:
The thing about these guys was that they had no secrets. Their high opinions of themselves, and their sense of entitlement to things like sexual favors, nice clothes, good cars, and a future in which everything would go their way, were fully on display. What you saw was what you got, and she did not believe, as some of the other girls said, that the boys at the parties were separate form some sober incarnation of the same boys. The boys at the parties were being who they wanted to be, and while at one time she had harbored illusions about who they were, and while she had lost some of her enthusiasm for them, she still didn't doubt that their world was where she was headed. Now she just thought that forewarned was forearmed.
The enemy was across campus, in Agronomy, the war was played out in terms of row planting vs. food crops, and a thousand other antitheses, and the horticulturists really believed that gardening would save the world that agriculture was destroying. 'How do you think everyone was employed for thousands of years?' he would rage. 'In growing food and fiber! Is idleness on the streets actually BETTER?' They loved his lecture on how agriculture actually promoted starvation by first promoting overpopulation. They would surge out of the classroom, electrified by the passionate vision of agriculture as a catastrophic historical mistake –– he could produce fifty new revolutionaries every semester without any classroom preparation.
She had never wanted to marry Dean, but now, perversely, considering how deeply she disapproved of calf-free lactation and how firmly convinced she was that their couplehood would cease sometime soon, she wished they had gotten married, so that their life together would go out with a bang, rather than passing away in the vapor that now seemed inevitable. Partly she wanted this so that the surprising pain she felt at the breakup would be publicly marked and noted. Partly she wanted it because in retrospect her whole life seemed mostly vaporous, undifferentiated by events –– no children, no marriages, no advanced degrees, not even any big-time championships, many pretty good horses that she'd brought along well enough, but no great one. Okay, and no grand lover for an extraordinary and unique lover, either, just many days and years with Dean, an ordinary man of ordinary tastes who was terribly afraid of seeming ordinary, itself a characteristic that Joy had noted in almost every man and most of the women she had known.
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" Sherman Alexie
This is the semi-autobiographical story of Arnold "Junior" Spirit, a Spokane Indian whom, at 14, goes to a neighboring school for mostly whites. He's bright and ends up being a basketball whiz as well. As he deals with becoming an outcast on the rez, we are witness to how Arnold deals with balancing both worlds:
"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."
"Hey, Dad," I said. "What do Indians have to be thankful for?"
"We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us"
We laughed like crazy. It was a good day. Dad was sober. Mom was getting ready to nap. Grandma was already napping.
"Ah, it's my best friend, Rowdy. Well, he used to be my best friend. He hates me now."
"How come he hates you?" he asked.
"Because I left the rez," I said.
"But you still live there, don't you? You're just going to school here."
"I know, I know, but some Indians think you have to act white to make your life better. Some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful."
"If that were true, then wouldn't all white people be successful?"
Man, Gordy was smart. I wished I could take him to the rez and let him educate Rowdy. Of course, Rowdy would probably punch Gordy until he was brain-dead. Or maybe Rowdy, Gordy, and I could become a superhero trio, fighting for truth, justice, and the Native American way. Well, okay, Gordy was white, but anybody can start to act like an Indian if he hangs around us long enough.
For a book that deals with such serious and sobering issues, it's also laugh out loud funny.
"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" Maggie O'Farrell
This is the story of Iris Lockhart, a stylish, young dress shop owner, who is informed that she has power-of-attorney for an aunt that has ben locked away in a mental institution for over sixty years. Esme Lennox was put away years earlier due to her inability and perhaps unwillingness to abide by polite society. In those days, a family could just institutionalize a young woman with independent spirit.
Just before chapter one, O'Farrell includes a poem by Emily Dickinson that nicely prefaces what's to follow...
Much Madness is divinest Sense ––
To a discerning eye ––
Much Sense –– the starkest Madness ––
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail ––
Assent –– and you are sane ––
Demur –– and you're straightaway dangerous ––
And handled with a chain ––
And here are a couple passages I marked along the journey...
From all her family –– her and Kitty and Hugo and all the other babies and her parents –– from all of them, there is only this girl. She is the only one left. They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting in the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme's Mother. We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents.
And on the idea of parents "breaking the spirit" of a child...
"Mother,” Esme begins tremulously, “I don't want to ––“
Her mother brings her face down to hers. “What you want,” she murmurs, almost lovingly, into her ear, “does not come into this. The boy wants you. Goodness knows why, but he does. Your kind of behaviour (sic) has never been tolerated in this house and it never will be. So, shall we see if a few months as James Dalziel's wife will be enough to break your spirit. Now, stand up and get yourself dressed. Here's your sister with your frock.”
The idea of Esme being put away for the length of her life in a home for the 'mad' is heartbreaking. Well worth the read.
"A Thousand Acres" Jane Smiley
"Souls Raised From the Dead" Doris Betts
"The Lecturer's Tale" James Hynes
"Up In the Air" Walter Kirn
"Lush Life" Richard Price
"Four Kinds of Rain" Robert Ward
"Gentlemen of the Road" Michael Chabon
"The Mind Box" A. J. Diehl
"Killing Time" Caleb Carr
"Brother Odd" Dean Koontz
"Plainsong" Kent Haruf
"Good Faith" Jane Smiley
The review below by Regina Marler of Amazon sums this one up nicely:
Opening a Jane Smiley novel is like slipping into a warm bath. Here are people we know, places where we grew up. But the comforting, unassuming tone of her work allows Smiley incredible latitude as a writer, and her books are full of surprises. Good Faith, a novel about greed and self-delusion set in the economic boom of the early 1980s, is no exception. Joe Stratford is an amiable, divorced real estate agent in an unspoiled small town called Rollins Hills. He takes it in stride when a married female friend pursues a love affair with him; he is more suspicious when a high-rolling newcomer named Marcus Burns begins to influence the business affairs of the men closest to Joe. Nevertheless, the promise of easy riches draws Joe into one of Burns's real estate development schemes, and then, ominously, into gold trading. The steps by which a nice guy can be lured into betraying his principles are delineated so sharply in Good Faith that you wonder how Joe cannot see them. Although he never quite manages to understand what has happened to him, he's granted a moment of grace at the close of the novel, a second chance that has nothing to do with money, ambition, or the tarnished American Dream. Since we live with the legacy of the self-serving 1980s, Smiley's novel seems as timely as if it were set in the present. Penetrating, readable fiction by one of our best writers and social critics.